Selecting Your Ideal Graduate Psychology Program

07/01/20224 minute read
Selecting Your Ideal Graduate Psychology Program

Step 1: Survey Your Undergraduate Experience

It is not necessary to have majored or minored in Psychology to gain admission to a good graduate degree program. It is most important that you show the school/program you’re applying to why you are the best candidate for a specific degree and course of study at that school. Graduate schools welcome individuals from diverse academic backgrounds, as it enriches the classroom and campus experience for all. The work ethic that you brought to your undergraduate experience will translate to your next level of education, and with a strong application, admission essays, and interview, each school will be able to determine whether you will thrive in that environment.

That said, it is beneficial to link your current desire to pursue Psychology with your undergraduate course of study and/or work, volunteering, or other experiences you have had since you graduated. Admissions officers want to see that you have thought carefully and maturely about this degree and why it makes sense for you at this point in your life. Take note of what you have studied, learned, experienced—and develop a strong application that shows how this fits seamlessly in with your present.

Step 2: Envision Your Ideal Day-to-Day Work

Do you see yourself teaching in a university’s Department of Psychology and/or conducting research in the field? Would you ideally work in an office providing hands-on psychological services to clients and/or supervising clinicians who do? Do you dream of holding your own private practice, living amongst or virtually serving your clientele? Would you like to work as a School Psychologist in an academic setting; or is your goal to provide Organizational Psychology services to businesses and corporations?

It is not necessary to know going into graduate school the precise work that you will pursue; in fact, so much of the excitement and joy of the field is the magnitude of self-discovery and development that occurs along the journey. However, different degrees are more highly applicable to different professional roles. When you are researching schools, ensure that you are aware of the degree offerings and how those fit with your aspirations. For example, someone who wants to work as a clinician in a non-profit organization may pursue a Masters Degree in Social Work (MSW); a student who wants to keep options for further degrees open but also wants to get started in the field may gain a Masters Degree in Counseling or Clinical Psychology (MA or MS); someone who wants to pursue a doctorate degree but would rather the emphasis be more on clinical work rather than research might explore a Doctor of Psychology degree (PsyD); and an individual who wishes to hold a practice, teach at the university level, and author books on psychology may look for Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology degree programs (PhD).

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Step 3: Research Your States(s)

Different U.S. states have different requirements for the practice of Psychology. Some states allow clinicians to practice at the Masters level, while some require that a Masters level clinician secure state licensure prior to practicing. A doctorate in psychology is standardly recognize as licensure-eligible, but it is important to know what operates in the state of each school as well as the state in which you envision yourself residing. It is certainly not necessary to know future living plans, as each state board, in the case of licensure, will inform you of how you can transfer recognition to that state; however, this is something of which to take note.

Step 4: Engage with Students and Alumni

Learning about the school experience from current students and alumni of the program you’re seeking is an important part of your research process. Are students finding their experiences to match and/or exceed expectations set by the schools’ presentations? Have alumni found success in the field(s) that are of particular interest to you? How have they found the course of study and degree earned to fit into the broad scope of options and opportunities one will encounter with a graduate degree in Psychology? If they had their graduate experience to do over again, would they choose the same school and degree?

Step 5: Consider Orientations in Psychology

Within the field of Psychology, researchers, educators, and clinicians often have an orientation toward a particular modality. One professional might be drawn to research or practice with a psychodynamic focus, while another is attracted to learning and application of behavioral therapy techniques. Graduate programs offer an array of focuses, some specific to a school and some broad across educators in their Department of Psychology. It is important to research your selected school’s bent toward any particular modality, which can be discovered through the academic backgrounds, research topics, and publications of professors in the program in addition to conversations with current and former students. Single out one or two professors whose work reflects your interests and with whom you would want to connect, whether as a research assistant, mentor, or thesis advisor; and some schools offer research/work opportunities in a subset of the department that focuses on one specialty in the field.

Step 6: Befriend the Evolution

Your very exploration of schools, opportunities, areas of interest, experiences of students, and whether/how you see yourself thriving in each one is itself a wonderful part of your journey. We glean immense self-knowledge and insight from assessing how we merge with different settings, and certainly in the field of Psychology, this will make you an even stronger professional. Enjoy the process, as it marks the first step in your exciting and enriching journey into this compelling field.

Kiki Attonito, MA, Clinical Psychology
Teachers College Columbia University, 2001